Should the Maltese State have a more direct role in the financing of its own Press?

To say that this is a thorny subject would be a crass understatement. One can fully understand the reluctance that both politicians and journalists may have when discussing the present and future conundrums of the latter’s profession, even from a holistic point of view.

Journalists fear the possible repercussions that certain decisions may have on the economic well-being of their industry, especially in today’s climate when the industry is facing so many existential questions.

The advent of new media, previously heralded to be the Great Equalizer and the most efficient disseminator of relevant information, has instead left newspapers around the world fighting against a world of unregulated content, curated through complicated algorithms run amok by tech giants like Facebook and Google, with very little room for transparency, let alone accountability. This in turn has left most newspapers with their backs to the wall, in an unrequited “Join Us or Die” relationship with social media that, ultimately ruined the previous economic models, while failing to provide adequate alternatives.

On the other hand, to misquote Philip L. Graham (former publisher of the Washington Post), traditional political doctrine denotes journalism as being the first rough draft of any politician’s history. The ability for a political party to get its message across remains dependant on the local media’s recipience. Even in a post-Trumpian era, where most political norms were thought to be made extinct, most people still hold what’s published in a newspaper on a higher regard than the average comment on social media, or on a blog.

Press Freedom Report: A possible call to arms?

Rather than mulling over the possible minefields, and reminiscing about old ‘The Thick of It’ episodes, the existence of such existential questions should compel legislators around the world to seek out possible solutions.

Just as the Media and Defamation Act (Chapter 579 of the Laws of Malta), which came into force in 2018, managed to remove the antiquated yet perilous threat of criminal libel, so too can such a new act, the possible end result of a multi-stakeholder discussion with journalists and journalist representatives such as the IĠM, result in another step forward for ensuring a stronger, more vibrant press corps in Malta.

The ability for a political party to get its message across remains dependant on the local media’s recipience.

Malta is currently ranked 81st in the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, down from 48th in 2015. The assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia has undoubtedly cast a cloud over journalistic work here in Malta. In turn, the last EU Barometer survey shows Maltese trust in the written press as being that of 32%, way below the EU average, and nearly half that shown to the Maltese Government (63%).

Grim Reading? Maybe. Or maybe, all of this should spurn the Government to take a more bold, and progressive step by recognising that a stronger, more stringent press is a symbol of, rather than an impediment to, a stronger democracy.

Through darkness, light – The COVID-19 Pandemic as the most recent test case

In this light, the terrible turmoil arising from the COVID-19 pandemic has also handed to us an unparalleled local opportunity.

As part of its economic recovery programme, the Maltese Government had launched a direct scheme to media houses, with the guidelines showing how newspapers, online-only news portals, radio stations and TV media providers were all eligible to receive these funds, at a time when almost all possible streams of revenue for these media companies nearly vanished.

The European Commission, while staying mum on the Maltese aid package given to the press, had accepted similar proposals brought forward by Denmark, Cyprus and Sweden.

Could this financial aid, which was given at a time of urgent need, be transformed into something more concrete, tangible, and permanent?

At face value, the answer seems to fall foul of European Competition Legislation. The laws of State aid are, indeed, difficult to manoeuvre away from, except for very restrictive reasons.

However, there exist a number of projects which the Maltese Government can examine and attempt to base its own program on.

The French and Swedish Examples

Back in November of 2017, France had notified the European Commission of its intention to disseminate a Financial Aid Package to those publications which disseminated “general and political information to the public,” but suffered from “weak advertising revenue, either structurally given their editorial positioning, or cyclically. In this way, it contributes to maintaining the diversity of the supply of the press, and the pluralism of democratic debate.”

This €4 million p.a. fund, which is bound to finish by the end of 2022, and included a list of stringent criteria on who were the beneficiaries of such financial aid, was described by the European Commission as “leaving positive results for the pluralism of information and media, which is in line with the objectives of the European Charter of Fundamental Human Rights.”

Subsequently, Sweden also amended their previous Financial Package, which was originally meant to help newspapers transition from paper to more digital-oriented, to a more general financial aid package. It noted how, “while the availability of media content has generally increased, the willingness among consumers to pay has also decreased… From a public interest perspective, in a smaller Member State, the market, without state support, is unable to deliver the desired output which is deemed necessary in order to retain legitimate common objectives, such as media pluralism, democratic debate and cultural diversity.”

Could this financial aid, which was given at a time of urgent need, be transformed into something more concrete, tangible, and permanent?

Possible pitfalls, and existing solutions

Of course, these examples do come with certain caveats.

First of all, whatever the funds possibly allocated to Maltese newsrooms by such an initiative, they most probably might not be enough to cover a significant part of their expenses, but only as aid. These funds are not meant to substitute any other sources of revenue that the Maltese press need to make use for maintaining a sustainable operation, but rather to boost the quality of their product.

In turn, this will mean that the same commercial threats to Maltese newsrooms (in terms of advertisements, sponsored content etc.) will still remain, even if alleviated slightly.

Secondly, whatever scheme gets created by any government must delineate the eligibility criterion for any possible candidates. Since our Media and Defamation Act, or for that matter any other legislation, has failed to define what constitutes a journalist, should the same blogs who have been afforded the same legal rights as traditional publishers (including the anonymity of sources) be also allowed to benefit financially from such schemes? If so, would there exist differing amounts between the different types of newsrooms (online portals, TV newsrooms, newspaper publishers)? And, with the IGM still lacking a statutory recognition to it (unlike say, the Occupational Health and Safety Authority), would they be the final adjudicators of who gets what? Should the DOI Press Card play a role in this as well or not?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Thirdly, the major hurdle in launching such a scheme might be in its potential for arbitrariness. The aforementioned French scheme, for example, was issued by the Culture Ministry at the time, and was still the subject of criticism in the French Press for its perceived arbitrariness. In Malta, the issue would be even more noticeable, given the small amount of media houses existing, as well as the part played by party-owned media houses.

I would perhaps go far as to propose that such funding, rather than it forming part of a Governmental scheme, could ascend to a Constitutional level, and thus follow the same system by which the salaries of the judiciary are paid, by forming part of the Consolidated Fund. This will ensure that no government may unilaterally diminish, or amend such a scheme in order to exert a greater degree of pressure on the press, for it will in turn run counter to the entire intention of such an incentive.

Conclusion – A possible giant leap for a stronger Press Corps

The proposal discussed above might resemble a humble, small step from a financial stand point, to what is essentially a significant problem faced by newspapers all around the world. The legal challenges that such a scheme may face are also significant, and require a deep, introspective discussion.

However, should an opportunity exist for the Maltese legislator to grab the bull by its horns, and propose such an active, transparent boost to the Maltese Press Corps, then the positive ramifications of such a decision can and should spill over to other facets of the democratic pillars of our country.

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emanuele grech
emanuele grech
2 years ago

finance the local press ? are you kidding ? what press ? and on what basis ? media houses are business concerns like every other business, and if they cannot make ends meet, they fold up like every other business. Let’s get serious please.

Frans Camilleri
Frans Camilleri
2 years ago

I agree with some kind of aid, but not to subsidise operations. It should go to professional formation programmes. Our journalists badly lack certain competences in economics, statistics, analysis, etc